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Grocers embrace robotics, automated systems

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Technological advances have been necessary for nearly every industry to evolve, and the food and beverage industry has been quick to embrace new technology, especially food retailers. Self-checkout stations have been a fixture at most large grocery chains for many years, and several businesses have debuted automated systems in recent years for operational purposes. Kroger partnered with UK grocery logistics company Ocado to automate its online grocery fulfillment at several US warehouse sites. ShopRite debuted a remote-controlled robot in Pennsylvania to deliver groceries to local customers. Schnuck Markets deployed the inventory management robot Tally at all of the supermarket chain’s locations, which is the first wide-scale expansion of this kind of technology for a grocery retailer.

Robots arrive in grocery aisles

Schnucks didn’t set out to become a pioneer of automation and robotics in the food retail industry. Instead, the company simply wanted to provide an improved customer experience in stores, according to Dave Steck, Schnucks’ vice president of IT infrastructure and application development.

The artificial intelligence-enabled Tally solution made by Simbe Robotics travels throughout the store and scans shelves to gather data on information such as inventory position, price accuracy and promotional execution. The robot enables more accurate real-time inventory and better restocking as well as product location information for employees and customers via the Schnucks Rewards mobile app.

“By and large our customers are excited to see the robot -- we have some families that plan their shopping times so they can be there when they know Tally will be traversing,” said Steck. However, since the robot is not disruptive to the shopping experience nor meant for consumers to interact with, most consumers ignore it unless they have kids, he added.

Steck emphasized that Schnucks chose to partner with Simbe because of the company’s focused automation solutions. Tally “aligned with what we were trying to do to improve the on-shelf experience for our customers,” said Steck. “Other vendors wanted to do a lot more than scan the shelves and that meant to us that they were trying to be everything for everybody, but most likely not really good at anything.”

Automated systems come to the fore

While Tally and other grocery retail robots are a new experience for customers -- and even many workers -- automated systems are already familiar to most consumers. Self-checkout kiosks are a staple at most groceries and have been developed to meet the many needs of customers. 

Ariel Shemesh, founder and CEO of retail software company KanduAI, said that especially during the coronavirus pandemic, two major needs have arisen for both businesses and consumers: contactless and zero queueing checkout. KanduAI offers a simple and cost-effective solution to these issues through its fresh produce self-checkout technology that can detect the correct item with deep learning computer vision, rather than other systems that require the user to search for or input an item code for their produce.

While Shemesh said it is best for staff to be fully trained on the technology, there is not much other preparation that retailers have to do to implement their system because it is “a plug-and-play solution, which does not require any additional hardware or cloud resources.”

“[T]he increased adoption and superior customer experience at the self-checkout does not mean no service, it actually means better service as retailers can train employees that used to be cashiers and are now free to provide service in the aisle,” he added.

Pandemic presents new learning opportunities

Tech advances have been key to success long before the coronavirus pandemic, but the past 18 months have proven just how necessary automation is to the food industry.

“When the pandemic first hit, we were still in the midst of expanding Tally from 16 to 62 stores, and the entire supply chain ecosystem was severely disrupted,” said Steck. “We had been conservative with not allowing Tally to automatically order out-of-stock products unless the store team first had the opportunity to pull stock from the backrooms. In this case, though, we knew the back rooms were empty, and if Tally saw an out at the shelf, we automatically created the order.”

This new process allowed Schnucks to better serve customers who were looking for the items that were going out of stock quickly and helped the company learn the reality of its in-stock position, according to Steck

“We have sophisticated forecasting and fulfillment systems, but there are so many touchpoints from the start of the supply chain to the time the item is purchased at the frontend, and each touchpoint creates an opportunity for inventory drift,” said Steck. “Tally gave us considerable insight into where this drift occurs, and now that we know where it is happening, we can take action on it.”

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